The Evolution of the Jazz Dance Movement in the Twin Cities

Article by Zoe Sealy

With introduction by Mike Wangen
Zoe Sealy is a local dancer/choreographer and a pioneer in the development of the Jazz Dance community here.  In a city primarily based in the Modern Dance aesthetic, she carved out the beginnings of a Jazz Dance sensibility which has since flourished.  She has written a great article about the development of that work beginning in the early '70s.

The dance community of the Twin Cities has been an amazing gift to my artistic life for almost fifty years.   

Since that time I have witnessed and been a part of some incredible changes in the dance community in Minnesota.  Last summer The Lost Voices in Jazz Project brought me full circle.  The project was the brainchild of Karla Grotting, partnered with Karis Sloss and dancers of Eclectic Edge Ensemble and guest artists.   The focus of the project was to pay tribute to the incredible work of four choreographers, William Harren, Jeffrey Mildenstein, Clarence Teeters and David Voss, all of whom died of AIDS in the late eighties and early nineties.  Each had set works on the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company (MJDC) some 35 years ago.  Karla, a former MJDC member during that time, painstakingly reconstructed the dances with the help of an amazing group of skilled and dedicated dancers.  The project had a huge impact on the community.  It was a nostalgia trip for many, a history lesson for a large portion of the current dance community not born when those dances were created, and a look back at the impact the MJDC and jazz dance in general has had in shaping the Minnesota dance scene.  The impact on me was profound.  That said, I found it interesting in the process of reconstructing the work from the archives of MJDC repertoire, how the dancers struggled with the jazz styles of that period.  I was struck by how the dance training has changed over the years in MN.  This caused me to look back and reflect on the MN dance scene then and now; my focus being specifically on jazz dance, how it developed and has changed over time.        

Looking back, I knew very little about Minnesota and its’ burgeoning artistic community.  When my husband and I settled into our new home, my intention was to focus on raising my two young sons and freelance as a dancer/choreographer on occasion.  That did not last long.     

 

In the early seventies during my introductory time here, I soon learned I had stepped into a predominantly modern dance community, which was not my forte.  Prominent at the time was The Nancy Hauser Dance Company and School, along with the relatively young Loyce Houlton’s Minnesota Dance Theatre. There were also a host of independent choreographers and dancers producing work.  From that group the Minnesota Independent Choreographers Alliance (MICA) emerged, later to become the Minnesota Dance Alliance.  Ballet had a strong presence too, but nothing like the visibility and support of modern.  Not being a modern dancer I capitalized on my professional background in ballet, jazz, and tap, and became quite active in the musical theatre community.  In many cases I found myself not only choreographing, but in rehearsals teaching crash courses in jazz and tap.  Professional training in that area was clearly lacking in the Twin Cities.  A void I soon began to fill.  

At the encouragement of many, I opened the Zoe Sealy Dance Center (ZSDC) in 1972.  It quickly became a primary training ground for jazz and tap artists, many of whom are still active in the field in the Twin Cities and throughout the country.   

Shortly thereafter, working with a group of dancers I began to choreograph works for the concert stage.  One thing led to another, and in 1975 the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company was born, which was the first concert jazz dance company in the Upper Midwest.  As its’ founder and Artistic Director I did a large portion of the choreography, but commissioned other choreographers on occasion, hence, my involvement with the aforementioned choreographers.  During that time jazz dance became a vital part of the dance scene, not without a struggle, I might add.  Most of the dancers in the company I trained, as there weren’t many accomplished jazz dancers in the area to choose from.  In the beginning years of the company, jazz dance was not considered a legitimate art form among a large portion of the funding community.  Refusing to take no for an answer, my perseverance paid off and acceptance prevailed.  I now look back with pride at the impact the ZSDC and MJDC had on the dance scene.  At the time I was just following my passion, not realizing the trail I was influential in blazing.  

It was a turning point in the expansion and availability of dance training in Minnesota.  Modern was still the predominate discipline, but there were now more choices available.  In the mid eighties there were six companies that in collaboration with The O’Shaughnessy started The O’Shaughnessy Dance Series.  The inaugural companies were Nancy Hauser Dance Company, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Ethnic Dance Theatre, Zenon Dance Company, New Dance Ensemble and the MJDC.  The styles were varied with the training being specific to each company’s needs. Each school/organization’s identity was clear, based on its chosen discipline.  There was very little blending of styles, which was to come.                

Jazz training in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s was driven predominantly by the influences of Jack Cole, Matt Maddox, Luigi, and Gus Giordano; all icons in the field.  There were others of course, but most teachers/choreographers of that era were influenced by at least one or more of them.  I certainly was.  The movement vocabulary was precise, somewhat contained, and always musical with explosions of release and attack.  Musicality was and still is at the core of jazz dance, unlike most modern.

Another turning point was the Dance Program at the University of Minnesota.  I taught some of the first jazz classes there in the early eighties under the direction of Nadine Jette Sween.  Before Professor Sween’s death in the mid eighties she led the program and its fight for survival.  It soon became a part of the Theatre Department and in a national search Barbara Barker was hired to head the Dance Program.  Being modern based, she saw the importance of a broader curriculum, adding more ballet and jazz classes, which is where I came in.      

At the same time the ZSDC was thriving and supported a scholarship program focused on jazz dance training.  The MJDC had established itself and was performing and touring more than any other company in the Twin Cities.  Barbara Barker was making waves at the University of Minnesota and I soon found myself intricately involved in the expansion and rise to prominence of the Dance Program.  

The ZSDC closed in 1988 and the MJDC the following year.  I joined the University of MN Department of Theatre Arts and Dance.  The concert jazz dance movement was carried on by Danny Buraczeski.   He too choreographed on the MJDC in the mid eighties, which was his introduction to the Twin Cities.   

Moving to academe was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  

As a faculty member in the Dance Program, I was instrumental in developing over the years a jazz curriculum that offered beginning through advanced classes, in which jazz dance through the intermediate level was required for the BFA major.         

The core curriculum in technique was modern, ballet, jazz in that order with elective options such as tap, flamenco, classical Indian, etc.  I have many memories of my 25-year tenure in the Dance Program, a highlight being the shows I choreographed in collaboration with the School of Music’s Jazz Ensemble 1.  Dancing to live jazz music was a tremendous thrill and growth opportunity for the dancers and musicians.   Sadly that has not been continued.  Today the program is a driving force producing many graduates who are well-respected artists in the area and nationally.       

The specificity of movement during the heyday of the MJDC is somehow missing, which brings me full circle.  Training now is so diverse that students in many instances don’t get the opportunity to hone in on specific styles or disciplines long enough to fully grasp them.  Dance training today is excellent, but has become a melting pot of styles based on each instructor’s personal experiences; a normal evolution, not only dance.  I am grateful there is video to help preserve earlier methods of teaching that unfortunately are becoming more diluted with each generation.  I find today’s dancers eager to soak up as much information as they can, at the same time exploring new ways to move and create work, which is all good.  Somewhere in this mix, I hope there will still be an interest in the importance of handing down some of those classic styles, regardless of the discipline.  Without knowing where we came from how can we effectively move ahead?  

In conclusion, the dancers in The Lost Voices in Jazz Project were immersed in another time.  As I said before, they were all skilled dancers that came together from different technical backgrounds to bring to the stage exciting choreography and ways of moving most were not accustomed to.  They learned about the breadth of jazz dance and the importance of its history in this community.  As we forge ahead as artists, let us not forget how we got to where we are today.